Welcome to the first of what we hope will be many Ambassadorial Summits. We want this to become an annual opportunity to welcome down to Wilton Park members of the foreign and Commonwealth diplomatic community here in the UK in order to do what Wilton Park does best – build relationships through both formal and informal discussion, address key issues of common concern, and leave with a stronger sense of common interest and purpose. London is fortunate enough to benefit from one of the most seasoned and well connected foreign diplomatic corps anywhere in the world, and we want to both benefit from, but also help draw out the best of the considerable experience and expertise on international issues you all share, not just for bilateral, but for global benefit.
Some of you I hope will know the story of Wilton Park. Not enough people do, and in fact we are currently working on a new history book to be published next year which we hope will make an important contribution to building a wider understanding of just how we have engaged with and shaped world events over the course of 76 years, as a curiously and typically British contribution to global understanding.
To summarise our history, Wilton Park, like so many things in the UK, finds its roots in the closing years of World War 2 when the British government’s thoughts turned to how to win the peace. A key concern was to ensure post-war Germany and Europe, developed along democratic lines, and Wilton Park in fact was initiated by a German Academic, Heinz Koeppler, who had come to the UK from Germany as a refugee. Koeppler was chosen to conceive of a series of courses on ‘the challenges of democracy’ for the benefit of Prisoners of War, and subsequently civilians from Germany, and increasingly people of influence from across wider Western Europe. Our mission gradually became global in scope, but at its core was a desire to create a discreet space where groups of international decision makers could build links between themselves, as well as with relevant experts from beyond their fields, and actively solve global problems. Importantly though, where participants could not agree, the Wilton Park model has always been to identify disagreements, but in such a way as to preserve, or even enhance, relationships. This idea of ‘disagreeing well’ is one which we have long talked about at Wilton Park, but which has taken on new resonance in this age of social media angst.
Apart from this, there are other equally important elements we have discovered over time to be key to the quiet success of Wilton Park.
Firstly, our position at arm’s length from the UK government has enabled us the space and independence to win an international reputation for objectivity which has at times in our history led to comparisons as ‘an informal United Nations’. I am not sure we’d ever claim for ourselves quite that responsibility, but we do see ourselves as something of a small, informal but nimble multilateral organisation, able to support and feed into the work of more formal global bodies and processes. Indeed our partnership with various UN agencies is growing on perennial issues like non-proliferation and nuclear, biological and chemical weapons control, as well as emerging areas such as the rules governing behaviours in space, as the stresses and strains on multilateral agencies grow. We can only achieve this level of international recognition and credibility because we are both part of, but also apart from the FCDO and UK officialdom – a unique position that is ever more valuable and ever more rare in a world of deepening partisanship and division.
Secondly: the right quantity and mix of individuals is key in order to make progress on any particular issue. At Wilton Park we often talk about mixing the usual with the unusual suspects – and while we host gatherings for anything from 10 to 100 people, we find the optimal number for building both the right rapport and right outcomes is usually 30-40. Again what is distinctive about Wilton Park is that our key customers are governments and government officials, and while, with all due deference to our Minister here today, we very much welcome and sometimes require the input, encouragement and, for some of our most sensitive discussions – engagement of the most senior officials and Ministers – for the most part the officials most useful to achieving outcomes in Wilton Park dialogues are at Director, sometimes Director General level, and often actually Deputy Director or equivalent. This allows us to combine the need for seniority and experience with an active engagement and influence over policy processes.
To these officials we add the usual and unusual suspects – and here relevance but also diversity is our aim. There is no point only including the same, very good, but very familiar Ivy League or Oxbridge expert on issue X for their own sake. This is why we reach out to and, I think, are often more familiar with the emerging and interesting sources of expertise globally than some of our non-governmental thinktank colleagues. The experts you will hear from this afternoon on UK foreign policy are indicative of this, but we are also interested more globally in activists, faith leaders, business people, academics, sports professionals, diasporas, regulators and journalists. And we are just as interested in emerging influencers of tomorrow as those of today or yesterday. Indeed I would bet that Wilton Park is one of the most effectively and diversely connected organisations globally in terms of who is influencing internationally right now on most issues, or likely to be in the future.
Finally, the key to the success of Wilton Park are those most precious elements – time and space. These things as we all know are so rare, and the combination of technological advance and growing requirement for speed and efficiency, I believe make what we do here at Wilton Park all the more important. We succeed in convincing busy, influential people from around the world to step out of the oncoming blast of events, and to spend one or two days and nights talking and eating together in a peaceful and awe-inspiring setting to tackle big global challenges. And that human, basic element to what we do is quite unusual and powerful in this day and age, and I would argue a huge asset for the UK and the world.
These elements particular to Wilton Park, we have found over 70 plus years be timeless, and really demonstrate how fortunate we are in this country to have institutions built up, tested and proven over time – but we are not complacent. At a time when multilateralism is under ever growing stress, and the values which underpin an open, stable and accountable international order are ever more being questioned, the work of Wilton Park is becoming more important as a – largely behind the scenes – convenor, relationship builder, and problem solver. We can only achieve this in partnership with all of you, and I hope this will be the first of many such Ambassadorial Summits where we can share our work with you, and learn from your insights and expertise.